Little Dorrit (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Little Dorrit (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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by Charles Dickens

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One of Charles Dickens’ most personally resonant novels, Little Dorrit speaks across the centuries to the modern reader.  Its depiction of shady financiers and banking collapses seems uncannily topical, as does Dickens’ compassionate admiration for Amy Dorrit, the “child of the Marshalsea,” as she struggles to hold her

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One of Charles Dickens’ most personally resonant novels, Little Dorrit speaks across the centuries to the modern reader.  Its depiction of shady financiers and banking collapses seems uncannily topical, as does Dickens’ compassionate admiration for Amy Dorrit, the “child of the Marshalsea,” as she struggles to hold her family together in the face of neglect, irresponsibility, and ruin.  Intricate in its plotting, the novel also satirizes the cumbersome machinery of government.  For Dickens, Little Dorrit marked a return to some of the most harrowing scenes of his childhood, with its graphic depiction of the trauma of the debtors’ prison and its portrait of a world ignored by society.  The novel not only explores the literal prison, but also the figurative jails that characters build for themselves.

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One of Charles Dickens’ most personally resonant novels, Little Dorrit speaks across the centuries to the modern reader.  Its depictions of shady financiers and banking collapses seem uncannily topical, as does Dickens’ compassionate admiration for Amy Dorrit, the “child of the Marshalsea,” struggling to hold her family together in the face of neglect, irresponsibility, and ruin.  The novel was controversial during its time: George Bernard Shaw famously described Little Dorrit as “a more seditious book than Das Kapital,” while G. K. Chesterton, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, commented that it remained “a complete picture of the way England is actually governed at this moment.”[1]  Intricate in its plotting, the novel deals partly with the interconnected lives of Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam, partly with the rise of the fraudulent capitalist Mr. Merdle, whilst also satirizing the cumbersome machinery of government.  For Dickens, Little Dorrit marked a return to some of the most harrowing scenes of his childhood, with its graphic depiction of the trauma of the debtors’ prison and its portrait of a world ignored by society.  The novel explores the literal prison, but also the figurative jails that characters build for themselves.


Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812.  His father, John Dickens, was employed as a pay clerk for the royal navy and was known as a popular, generous man.  His financial affairs were, however, extremely precarious and he struggled with debt for most of his adult life.  In 1824 John Dickens was arrested and, like William Dorrit, he was incarcerated as a debtor in the Marshalsea Prison.  His son’s biographer, John Forster, was later to recount that as John Dickens entered through the gates of the prison he declared rather melodramatically to the young Charles that the sun had set on him forever—words that left his son feeling utterly heartbroken and alone in the world. In an autobiographical fragment that remained unpublished until after his death, Dickens recounted a visit to the prison and the advice that his father gave him:


My father was waiting for me in the lodge, and we went up to his room … and cried very much.  And he told me … to take warning by the Marshalsea, and to observe that if a man had twenty pounds a year, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched.[2]


These words were later to find their way into the mouth of the amiable wastrel Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield (1849–1850), although as Dickens shows in Little Dorrit, debtors were seldom as carefree as his loveable comic creation.


As was the custom for debtors, John Dickens’ family joined him in the prison, with the exception of Charles who, at just twelve years old, was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory, pasting labels onto bottles of boot polish.  Dickens was a highly sensitive boy, who had been raised to think of himself as a young gentleman and who found the whole experience degrading and humiliating.  He particularly resented the fact that he could be seen at his work through the window of the warehouse and was embarrassed to be performing such menial labor in public.  To make matters worse, while Charles went about his daily work, his younger sister Fanny continued to attend the Royal Academy of Music.  John Dickens was released from the Marshalsea in May 1824, but Charles continued to work at the factory until his father quarrelled with the owner several weeks later.  So shamed and tramatized was Dickens by these events that he never spoke of them to either his wife or his children.  The only person who knew of his childhood sufferings was his friend, John Forster, who was entrusted with the autobiographical fragment, presumably with a view to posterity.  The most distressing aspect of this unhappy period for Dickens was that his mother wanted him to continue with his work and protested when his father removed him from the position and allowed him to resume his schooling.  Writing of the misery he felt at his mother’s response, Dickens said, “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.”


The time spent at the Blacking Factory shaped the course of Dickens’ life and left him with a terror of ever falling into such appalling poverty again.  It also, of course, provided him with remarkable insights into the living conditions of the working classes and the sheer misery of poverty.  Little Dorrit is notable for its vivid depiction of the lives of the underclass in nineteenth-century London, and Dickens’ decision to set the novel in the 1820s allowed him to draw upon his own first-hand experiences as a young boy, left to make his own living in the metropolis.  Dickens was more fortunate than Amy Dorrit in that he returned to school for a brief period, before being apprenticed to a legal firm as a clerk.  He went on to work as a parliamentary reporter, covering debates in the House of Commons for newspapers, before joining the staff of The Mirror of Parliament, a newspaper founded by his uncle.  The experience of listening to parliamentary debates allowed Dickens to understand the full extent of the poverty and suffering caused by industrialism.  Although he was required to report with impartiality, his experiences in parliament were later to inform his depictions of the urban poor in works like Bleak House (1851–1853) and Little Dorrit


On top of his reporting duties, the phenomenally energetic Dickens began to write short fictional sketches.  In 1832, when he was twenty years old, Dickens submitted a piece to the Monthly Magazine to be considered for publication.  The article, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” (its title was later changed to “Mr. Minns and His Cousin”) was published in December of the same year and the magazine’s editor commissioned more short works from Dickens.  These pieces were later to be collected as Sketches by Boz—“Boz” having been the author’s childhood nickname.  In 1836, the publishing house Chapman and Hall asked Dickens to provide some text for a collection of sporting illustrations by the artist Robert Seymour.  The task was not particularly demanding, but with typical enthusiasm, Dickens sought more creative input into the project.  The characters became increasingly sophisticated and Mr. Pickwick of The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837) was born.  Sales figures for the early numbers were not impressive and the project looked doomed to fail.  However, in April 1836 Seymour—who had been battling depression for some time—committed suicide and Dickens took charge of the work, reconfiguring it as a series of narratives that drew upon his remarkable powers as a comic writer.


While his professional life was very clearly advancing, Dickens suffered a personal setback in the early 1830s.  He had fallen in love with the young, captivating Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a wealthy banker.  Maria had a number of other suitors and seems to have enjoyed tormenting her admirers by encouraging them, but then spurning their advances.  Maria’s parents disapproved of Dickens, not least because of the young, but ambitious, author’s precarious social and financial position.  In May 1833, following a passionate letter declaring his constant love, Dickens and Maria parted.  The novelist was hardly to see his first love again until 1855, when he received a letter from her out of the blue.  Although both were married, Dickens responded with a sequence of letters, which suggest that he was attempting to capture something of his lost, youthful romance, even going so far as to tell Maria that he had drawn on his passion for her in his portrait of the young, inexperienced couple, David and Dora in David Copperfield.  The years had not been kind to Maria and, when they eventually met, Dickens was extremely shocked by the change in her and tried to avoid further meetings or correspondence so far as possible.  Rather cruelly, he drew on this reunion in Little Dorrit, caricaturing Maria as the somewhat absurd and verbose, but nonetheless kind character, Flora Finching. 


The young Dickens recovered from this romantic disappointment and married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a colleague, on April 2, 1836.  Slowly, he moved away from journalism and became a professional writer of fiction, although since his novels appeared in serial format, he never completely abandoned the journalistic pressure of writing to a deadline.  Although Dickens had worked for other publishers as a paid author, in 1850 he founded his own weekly magazine Household Words, which allowed him absolute creative control over his work.  The journal was superseded by All the Year Round in 1859, although the format for both was the same, blending educational articles with stories, poetry, and the latest installment of a major novel, either by Dickens himself or by prominent contemporaries like Wilkie Collins or Elizabeth Gaskell.  Dickens became a publishing sensation and one of the first international literary celebrities.  His novels were popular with readers from all classes and the fact that they were published serially meant that his work was available cheaply to readers without the means to buy an expensive book.  Indeed, stories abound of illiterate workers pooling their resources to buy the latest installment of a Dickens novel that would then be read aloud to them.  


While he had the loyalty of countless impoverished “readers,” Dickens was, by the 1850s, astounded that the working classes had not risen up in revolt against their appalling living conditions.  His journalism had become increasingly militant in a bid to frighten middle-class readers into action and particularly noteworthy in this respect was the piece “To Working Men,” which appeared in Household Words in October 1854.  As G. K. Chesterton has registered, the 1850s were a particularly bleak period in Dickens’ life: he struggled with the breakdown of his marriage (he separated from his wife in 1858) and a growing sense of anger at the way in which the British nation was being mismanaged.  Bleak House, Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit, and A Tale of Two Cities (1859) are often referred to collectively as the “dark novels” of the 1850s and their tone of despair points to a genuine concern that the evil forces of “do-nothingism” parodied in Little Dorrit’s circumlocution office threatened to take over the nation as a whole.


Little Dorrit was published in monthly installments between December 1855 and June 1857.  As the critic Paul Schlicke notes, it was remarkable for attracting higher sales in its early stages than any of Dickens’ previous novels.[3]  It was also a controversial book, which generated divided critical responses.  Dickens had originally planned to call the novel Nobody’s Fault, and although he seems to have changed his mind less than a month before publication began, Little Dorrit remains deeply concerned with questions of personal and collective responsibility for the state of the nation.  As in Bleak House, he asks his readers to look beyond their own homes to provide aid for those in need, yet the repetition of phrases like the accusatory “nobody, somebody, and everybody” reveal Dickens’ growing despair that British people had, as a whole, become selfish and insular.  This was, after all, a world in which men like Mr. Merdle (based on the financier John Sadleir, who committed suicide in 1856) could appear from nowhere and be accepted into society without question because of people’s overwhelming greed.


Two major events of the 1850s contributed to the foreboding, desperate tone of Little Dorrit.  The first was the cholera epidemic that swept across Britain in June and July 1854, causing the deaths of more than ten thousand people.  Dickens was well aware that the high mortality rate could have been prevented had the government only undertaken some basic sanitary reform.  The second concern was Britain’s involvement in a war against Russia in the Crimea (1853–1856), which parliament frequently cited as a reason not to engage in even the most basic domestic reforms.  Thus, negligence at home and military aggression overseas became inextricably linked for Dickens, a point that was emphasized in “A Home Question,” an article by Henry Morley that Dickens published in November 1854.  While Morley’s piece demanded immediate social reform, Dickens wrote privately to his friend Angela Burdett Coutts, warning that if changes did not take place, then revolution would not be far away.  He figured this event in apocalyptic terms writing, “I clearly see that the War will be made an Administration excuse for all sorts of shortcomings and that nothing will be done when the cholera comes again.  Let it come twice again … and you will see such a shake in this country as was never seen on Earth since Samson pulled the Temple down upon his head.”[4]


Dickens was in France when hostilities in the Crimea broke out and he was initially spurred to patriotism and filled with admiration for the impressively organized French army.  When he returned to Britain, however, he was aghast to learn of a series of blunders including the despatch of summer uniforms to men on the front freezing in subzero temperatures, a shortage of weapons and accommodation for troops, and the administrative hold-up of food supplies that were left waiting on the docks in England, when they were needed in the Crimea.  Dickens satirized those responsible for this debacle in his depiction of the nepotism of the Tite Barnacles in Little Dorrit.  The novel’s first readers would have been acutely aware of Dickens’s animosity towards the people he termed “the governing classes that do not govern” because its installments appeared alongside articles that launched scathing attacks on the government.  When Little Dorrit was published in book form, Dickens once again drew attention to his attack on hereditary privilege and administrative negligence in his preface, writing:


If I might make an apology for so exaggerated a fiction as the Barnacles and the Circumlocution Office, I would seek it in the common experience of an Englishman, without presuming to mention the unimportant fact of my having done that violence to good manners, in the days of a Russian War, and of a Court of Inquiry at Chelsea.


Clearly it was important for Dickens that the topicality of his novel should not be forgotten or subordinated to the relationship between Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit.


With its spectacular illustrations of nineteenth-century urban life and its array of lively, and at times eccentric, characters, Little Dorrit is without doubt one of Dickens’ greatest novels.  Moving between London and Europe, wealth and poverty, responsibility and neglect, Dickens sets up a series of compelling contrasts to highlight the great divisions in Victorian Britain.  Little Dorrit is both a love story and Dickens’ angriest novel, and it is a testament to his genius that he can bring together vividly drawn characters and political satire in a work that can still speak to readers more than one hundred and fifty years after its publication.


Grace Moore teaches at the University of Melbourne, Australia.  She has published widely on nineteenth-century literature and culture and neo-Victorianism.  She is the author of Dickens and Empire (Ashgate, 2004), which was short-listed for the New South Wales Premier’s Biennial Award for Literary Scholarship (2006), and the co-editor of Victorian Crime, Madness and Sensation (Ashgate, 2004).

[1] George Bernard Shaw, ‘Preface’ Great Expectations.  Edinburgh: R & R Clark, 1937.

[2] Quoted in Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph.  Revised and abridged edition.  Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1986.  33.

[3] Paul Schlicke (ed).  The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens.  Oxford: OUP, 1999.  334-341.

[4] Charles Dickens, The Letters of Charles Dickens.  Volume 7, 1853-1855.  Ed. Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson, Angus Easson.  Pilgrim Edition.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.  444.

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